On January 21, 2009 President Obama issued a memorandum on “Transparency and Open Government” which was published in the Federal Register on January 26, 2009, Vol. 74, No. 15, p. 4685. There he stated that his administration would work to create “an unprecedented level of openness in Government” and work to “establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration” with the goal of strengthening our democracy. Different paragraphs in the memo state that “government should be transparent” in order to promote accountability; “government should be participatory” in order to improve the quality of its decisions; and that”government should be collaborative” in order to actively engage Americans in the work of their government. These goals are well aligned with the ideals of our democracy. Yet they may assume an intellectual infrastructure that is not yet in place. A column in the December 24 & 31, 2007 New Yorker titled “Twilight of the Books” cited a Department of Education study on literacy that indicated that the proportion of adults capable of comparing viewpoints in two editorials at 13%. A 2005 study by the American Bar Association indicated that only 55% of adults surveyed could name the three branches of government. Other studies have indicated that many Americans lack the literacy needed to handle complex, real-life tasks like reviewing credit card offers and other financial instruments.
Participatory engagement would suggest knowing the branches of government and their functions, and understanding the different proposals made. Although engaging more Americans in the work of government is a laudable goal, it is one that will require more than posting data online and otherwise making text available. We also need to equip citizens for informed dialogues in which they can learn from and inform each other, as well as provide input to their elected officials. This will require active effort to build skills and a range of media. If done well it has the potential to revitalize public involvement. Suggestions for engaging the public made elsewhere on this blog have included public debates and other kinds of forums. How do we best equip the public for a participatory role in modern government? Your suggestions are welcome.